Saturday, November 1, 2014

Whither the Manual Transmission

I have always, if it's available, ordered a stick shift, or manual transmission, for my cars. I think driving a manual makes the driving experience more fun and more engaging. There's something about hitting the correct gear as you downshift out of a corner to maximize the car's torque to accelerate.

Plus, in the past, manuals got better gas mileage, and had less maintenance and break-down issues.

The only problem I have with manuals is I've never mastered heel-and-toe downshifts. I blame this on ankles that don't like to be turned certain directions, but it might just be I'm not coordinated enough.

Fewer and fewer cars are now being offered with manuals and, according to an article a few years back in the Wall Street Journal, less than 20% of Americans can drive a manual. Which I thought was horrible when I read that.

And I'm starting to think it doesn't matter.

Last year (on Christmas Eve) I bought a new car. This car's transmission has three modes: regular (although I'm sure the marketing department calls it something else), manual, and sport. To put it in sport mode, you pull back on the shift lever when the car is in "Drive" and an "S" appears on the instrument panel under the "D" for "Drive." You can also push the lever to the right for "Manual" mode and shift using the paddles behind the steering wheel. (You can also while in "D" mode use the paddles to manually shift and after about a minute it goes back to automatic mode.)

In the year I've owned the car I've tried everything with the transmission, every mode of driving it. I have found that for passing (depending on how slow the car you want to pass is going) if you're in D you pull the left paddle to shift down to fourth or third, then accelerate. The car will automatically shift at the redline (6,200 RPM). This makes the pass very quick (and you have to be careful not to accelerate too much. First time I did that I was over 100 mph before I knew it).

Or, if you put the transmission in sport mode, it downshifts for you, always keeping the engine in what's called the "power band" where torque and horsepower are maximized. It does this better and faster than I can using the paddles.

Finally, if you try to shift using the paddles, you might miss the power band or short shift it. A human is just not as precises and accurate as the computer.

And, if you leave the transmission in "D" (normal), and accelerate moderately, it shifts often (it has 7 gears) and keeps the RPMs low to maximize gas mileage. It often shifts before 2,000 RPM. I've tried to replicate that using the paddles, and, again, can't shift fast or accurately enough.

In other words, in this car with this transmission, there's no need to shift manually even if a manual were an option. The computer can handle the gears better than I ever could. I do not miss having a manual at all. In fact, I enjoy NOT having a manual and letting the computer do the hard work.

One reason manuals are going away is because it is harder to make a manual transmission car meet federal regulations for pollution and mpg. But with the transmissions like in my new car, I may not care.

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